MEMOIRS ON KHMER ROUGE

by Phil Shoenfelt

 

"I arrived in New York in May 1979, intending to stay there for a week or ten days before travelling across country to California. Instead, I met a striptease dancer, spent my last few hundred dollars on a Fender Mustang electric guitar, and formed a punk band called the DC 10s which played one concert at Max’s Kansas City before self-destructing and disappearing into oblivion. I never did make it out of New York, and for the next five years I played in a succession of punk and post-punk bands, the most notable of which was Khmer Rouge.

New York was a wild place at the end of the ’70’s and in the early ’80’s. I’d arrived there at the height of the punk rock explosion, and to me it seemed like the last days of the Roman Empire, a wonderfully permissive scene in which anything was allowed as long as it was done with creativity and energy. Nobody ever seemed to sleep, and we’d go from club to club in a non-stop blur of frenetic activity checking out bands, taking drugs, making low-budget movies and generally living it up like there was no tomorrow. The scene I fell into was centered on St. Mark’s Place and the East Village, a less fashionable neighbourhood than Greenwich Village a few blocks to the west, but much more vital and interesting. Everybody seemed to be in a punk band, most of the male musicians had stripper or model girlfriends who supported them financially, and if you were in a known band it was possible to get free admission to clubs like CBGBs, Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge and the Mudd. As most of the bar staff in these establishments were musicians or singers too, and as we all knew each other from the scene, it was possible to drink all night for free as well. For the first couple of years of my time in New York I thought I was living in Paradise.

Somehow, in the midst of all this mayhem, I was managing to write a fair amount of songs. For a while I played bass in a punk band called The Nothing (now, apparently, something of a cult in Japan), then guitar in a downtown art-rock band called Disturbed Furniture, and I contributed material to both of these outfits. But I was increasingly obsessed with the post-punk sounds of British groups like Joy Division, The Fall, PIL and Gang Of Four, as well as the emerging New York noise bands, and I wanted to play music that was a little more adventurous than anything I’d played so far. As I couldn’t find a suitable band to join, I decided to form my own, and sometime in the late summer of 1981 Khmer Rouge played its first concert at the three day White Columns Noise Festival, held in a SOHO art gallery. This extravaganza of downtown noise bands was organized by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and somewhere a tape exists which includes every group that played in the festival. Unfortunately, like so many other things I owned in that period, it’s gone AWOL, and the only reminder of the concert I possess is a badly chewed fragment of reel-to-reel tape which is in no condition to be mastered.

After this debut performance, nothing much happened for a couple of months. The bass player and second guitarist left, and it wasn’t until I made contact with Barry “Scratchy” Myers towards the end of 1981 that things began to pick up. Scratchy had been the Clash’s tour DJ on their first three American tours, and he’d also had his own radio show on WHBI-FM, so I was a little intimidated when I first went to meet him to discuss Khmer Rouge Mark 2. I’d seen him play bass with his previous band, California punk-country rockers Rank And File, and had been suitably impressed with his playing, but it wasn’t until we’d met up for a drink that I began to realise the depth of the man’s passion about music and his encyclopedic knowledge about the history of Rock & Roll. We seemed to hit it off together personally, and as soon as we went into rehearsals it was obvious that Scratchy was only willing to be involved in this project if it was going to be a serious undertaking. He made that clear at the outset, but for me it was just perfect – I’d been looking for a partner in crime who would be as obsessed with the music as I was, and I had no hesitation about giving him my assurances on that score. 

Most of the material I had written during the previous two years was a little under-developed, and as we began to rework and revamp it I saw that Scratchy was an excellent arranger as well as a rhythmically solid and inventive bass player. I’d turn up with the basic song, music and lyrics more or less complete, then Scratchy would start to change the arrangement and structure until the song became focused and tight, often a long way from what I’d originally envisioned. This, of course, sometimes led to arguments, but listening back now, twenty years later, I’ve got to admit that his arrangements were much more cohesive than mine. He also brought a rootsier kind of rhythmic sensibility to the music which hadn’t been there before, an effect, no doubt, of his deep immersion in reggae music. While I was trying to merge the poetry of radical Situationist politics with the experimental guitar noise of artists such as Glenn Branca and the New York “No Wave” bands, Scratchy was coming from the classic British punk-reggae fusion, a fusion that he himself had helped pioneer through his DJ work with The Clash.

We went through a succession of drummers, as documented elsewhere by Scratchy, going out on the road and supporting a series of well-known acts. For a couple of years we were a “hot” property on the New York club circuit, and everybody, including us, expected the band to be signed by a major label. We turned down an offer from Red Star Records when Marty Thau insisted that we change our name, a strange request from the man who’d managed the New York Dolls and Suicide. For awhile CBS Records were interested, but then declined, as did several others, and it turned out later they were not too keen on one factor that was playing an increasingly large part in the life of the band: our use of heroin. I’d begun using the drug several years before, in London, but it had always been a kind of on-off recreational use and I’d never let it take things over. By the end of 1982, though, my personal life was spinning out of control, and I needed to get my hands on vast amounts of money each day, just in order to feel normal. The pressures of having to do this inevitably had a negative impact on the band, and labels that had been keen to talk to us only a few months before suddenly stopped returning our calls.

Listening back to these songs, it’s hard to believe we were so strung out when recording them. The playing is crisp and powerful, not at all sloppy, and there is a freshness and energy present that would do credit to any non-drugtaking “staightedge” punk band. What is even more strange is the political content of most of the lyrics: in my experience, it’s not so common for a bunch of whacked-out junkies to be singing songs about the CIA’s undercover operations in various parts of the developing world; and even though the songs I write with my present band Southern Cross are far more personal in their lyrical content, I still believe in the worldview I had at that time and which informed the lyrics of our songs.
Sometime in 1983 we linked up with photographer Nat Finkelstein, author of The Factory Years and art-terrorist extraordinaire. Nat had been involved in several undercover operations of his own, and after his Warhol period had been on the run from various law enforcement agencies for several years. Now he was back in New York and looking for a band to manage, and possibly because of our provocative name we were the ones he settled on. It seemed like the perfect alliance: radical post-Situationist punk band meets brilliant photographer with money to burn and cultural credibility, and it seemed like we were about to be rescued. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and most of the money that should have gone on recording and musical development ended up being wasted on drugs. Whether that was his fault or ours is a matter of opinion, but what is certain is that everybody’s worst traits seemed to get magnified, and the relationship finished in a punch up when we couldn’t agree on the terms of the contract he had drawn up.

By this time the drugs had really started to take their toll. I was sick and unhealthy most of the time, down to nine stone and looking more like a skeleton than a human being. I’d more or less split up with Marcia, and it looked as if the band would also disintegrate, while almost every time I went out into the streets to buy drugs I was getting knives and guns pulled on me. My friends decided that it was time for me to leave New York, and if I hadn’t done so at that point I’d probably have left a little later in a six-foot wooden box. I did a credit card swindle to raise funds for the air ticket back to London, and Scratchy and myself arrived at Gatwick Airport on 1/4/1984 to be confronted with newspaper headlines announcing the death of Marvin Gaye. Somehow, that seemed to say it all, and we spent the next few weeks drying out at Scratchy’s parent’s place in Beckenham.

By the time Marcia arrived a couple of months later, we were busy reinventing ourselves as a kind of political Goth band. Claus also followed us across the Atlantic, and his credentials as artist in residence in the wonderful and frightening world of The Fall allowed us to make contact with Mark E. Smith. We did a couple of British tours supporting The Fall, and later Mark released my first solo single on his label Cog Sinister, but the relationship also resulted in the departure of Marcia who spent the next few years as keyboard player with Mr. Smith and Co. The last concert I remember playing with Khmer Rouge was as a three piece at a squat party in a unused railway engine repair shed in the bowels of Paddington station: I’d taken LSD and magic mushrooms, and as the neck of my guitar turned to rubber in my hand, and my cables transformed themselves into a pit of writhing snakes, the police decided to raid the joint and surrounded the one thousand-plus revellers like a posse of Indians around a wagon train. I was given a tape of the gig later, and I swear that the music sounded as if it was being played backwards…

So, my final thoughts on our music twenty years after it was recorded? When the newly mastered CDs arrived from London, I was a little worried that I’d find the recordings unlistenable, or at least that the songs would sound stale and full of clichés. I don’t listen to a lot of post-punk music these days, and much of what I used to like sounds dated and irrelevant, so I was pleasantly surprised that Khmer Rouge’s output still sounds fresh and vital. While it is definitely of its time, there is a spark and an intensity that seems to reach across the years, and much of what we were singing about sounds as relevant today (maybe even more so), than it did in the early eighties. True, we never made a huge impact on Rock & Roll history, but personally I’m far more interested in obscure bands that never made it, in their tortuous struggles to survive against the odds, than I am in the over-exposed stories of bands that achieved commercial success and mass adulation. And I think it’s some kind of miracle that not only did we all survive, but that we managed to make a bit of decent music while clinging to the precipice by our fingernails."

Phil Shoenfelt
Prague, May 2003

www.philshoenfelt.de

 


 

A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE NAME ...

Coming of age in the early 1970’s, I’d immersed myself in the New Left political writings of Paris 1968, as well as the Counter Cultural writings of people like Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Theodore Roszak and Norman Mailer. I was quite shocked, on moving to New York in 1979, that no one in my age group seemed to know (or care) anything about the flawed reasoning that led to America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Of course, people knew about the war and its result, but it seemed that they would rather forget America’s humiliating defeat instead of confronting the politicians and generals who had got the country into the mess in the first place. To most people it was now a closed chapter of history, even though uncomfortable questions remained to be answered regarding the logic of fighting a war halfway across the world for extremely questionable reasons. Someone once said that those who choose to forget history are condemned to repeat it, and the present fiasco in Iraq looks like bringing the point home yet again…

Part of the Vietnam debacle was America’s secret bombing of Cambodia, an episode that has been written about at length by William Shawcross in his admirable book Sideshow. As the Americans abandoned ship, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime took over in Cambodia, filling the power vacuum the Americans left behind and starting history again at the Year Zero. Shortly before I moved to New York, the Khmer Rouge had been deposed by the invading Vietnamese army, but not before they had slaughtered an estimated two and a half million people.

By naming our band Khmer Rouge, I hoped to provoke people into thinking about the effects of U.S. foreign policy, not only in Asia but in Latin America too. I was naïve enough to think that the name would prompt uncomfortable self-questioning, a search for truth and knowledge which would make it more difficult for the politicians and military mafias to pull the wool over the eyes of the public in future. Instead, we got people from the American Communist Party and the R.C.P. coming to our gigs to check out our political credentials, while most everyone else seemed to think that our name referred to a type of cosmetic or make-up.

I don’t think I’d use such a provocative name for a rock band again. Most people don’t give a shit about real political change, and anyway rock music works best on the level of a one dimensional cartoon, and isn’t really able to accommodate any subtlety of thought. You have to hit people over the head with a hammer to get any kind of reaction, and if you do succeed in getting this then it will be immediately co-opted  by the music and fashion business and used to sell large amounts of CDs and related merchandise. Radical Chic was never our aim, and so maybe it’s better that Khmer Rouge (the band) ended as it did, true to its musical and political ideals, dead in the water as a marketable commercial concern.